DVD Review: Innocence (2005)
A trick has been played upon me, a trick perpetrated by my boyfriend, in league with the nefarious French. That’s right, the same French whose films I make a point of avoiding, unless pretty dresses are involved…but even then, it’s a bit of a stretch. This go around had my boyfriend talking up this great little film, a film involving a girls’ boarding school. Now, I’m a sucker for plotlines involving boarding schools. Exhibit A: Harry Potter. Going further back, there is my love of P.G. Wodehouse and his seemingly endless supply of tales involving cricket and prefects and jam and scones. The fact that the film at hand was to be a girls’ boarding school, well, a whiff of the exotic was in the air. There’s nothing so quintessentially English as a boarding school, and being a bit of an Anglophile myself, I couldn’t have been more pleased. So imagine my chagrin when up popped the subtitles.
“Wait! This is a French film!” I wailed to the boyfriend.
“Well, of course. Is there any other kind?”
Since it was already rolling, I figured I might as well stick it out and brace myself for a confusing snooze-fest complete with accent aigus. Lucky me that I did. It is rare to find a film that hits its mark so incisively while never once faltering. Just to clarify, by ‘hits its mark’ I don’t mean confusing and sleep-inducing, I mean mesmerizing, atmospheric and wholly absorbing. Innocence is just that film. Directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic (I’m totally serious), Innocence manages to combine a sense of claustrophobic menace, the riotous hush of nature, the cruelties and complexities of childhood and pins them unerringly beneath a cinematic canopy akin to The Spirit of the Beehive. Damn, did I go to film school or what?
Opening with the arrival of a new student in House 3 on the school’s grounds, the older girls take her in, dress her, plait her hair and then ceremoniously adorn her braids with red ribbons, a sign of her status as the youngest in the house. Oh, did I mention the new arrival was conveyed to the school in a coffin? Or that she popped out half naked? Or that the girls in the house just stood there, silently looking at her for something like 5 minutes? No? Well that totally happened.
Iris, the new girl, is then befriended by Bianca, the eldest of the girls and shown how life works in their walled, densely wooded campus. The seven girls are waited upon by silent old women who are rumoured to be former students of the school that once attempted escape, lifelong servitude being their punishment. The girls wear white uniforms and colored ribbons signifying their various ages, 6-12. Bianca disappears every night and refuses to tell Iris where it is she goes. Their lessons revolve around ballet and the identification of forest animals.
Hadzihalilovic elicits enigmatic performances from her young, non-acting girls that are powerful in their vulnerability and their individuality. The secrets of young girls, their rituals and their hierarchies, are allowed to unfurl before us in a manner so natural and yet paradoxically so poetically stylized that even though I have never set foot in an overnight summer camp, let alone a boarding school, it is not so hard to recall my own similarly constructed secret histories of childhood. But most intriguingly, Hadzihalilovic (God, it’s tiring just to type) explores the inherent sensuality of little girls (probably to the point of making some viewers ill at ease), as well as their capacity for cruelty. In one scene, the displaced youngest girl whips Iris’ bare legs with a tree branch and then calmly tastes the blood as Iris lies crying. Aside from illustrating that kids can be just plain gross, the camera gives an unflinching portrayal of how young children revel in their bodies, are unafraid of them and more than that, are actively engaged with their physical selves.
Eschewing a traditional score, Hadzihalilovic relies primarily upon ambient noise as well as what I thought was the insertion of a disconcerting white noise, a low, soulless drone, not unlike the kind favored by David Lynch in many of his films. Turns out that the boyfriend and I just have a crappy tv with some kind of volume issue, but if you can replicate that sound on your box, I think it really adds something. The resulting sense of what-the-hell-is-out-there-and-would-it-just-jump-out-already-I’m-dying-here-hey-are-you-gonna-eat-that-last-tortilla-chip refuses to let up. But here’s the great beauty of this film, the horror, once realized, is fairly mundane, but no less terrifying because the presentation is faultless. I’m won’t give away anything, but let me just say, I always knew there was a reason I hated ballet.
I won’t say this is a film for everyone. It’s pacing might be considered slow-going, its non-traditional narrative might be off-putting, but if you can allow yourself to be swept away by the lyricism and sink into the horror of the industrial drone you’re in for a treat. If Voldemort had shown up at this joint, he woulda been taken down in the twist of a braid.
I rate this film 9/10, you should totally see it.
* It has recently been brought to my attention that I have misspelled correspondence for the last two posts. As this sort of oversight makes me flail about in self-directed fury, I have decided to eternally punish myself by adopting this new title. Thank you.